Peak tourism straining resource-strapped county governments
South Dakota is at the peak of tourism season. Bikers, hikers, and hunters bring in millions of dollars to the state each year through sales tax revenue. Inevitably, some visitors will require services from counties that don’t receive any of those tax dollars. That’s raising questions about how to better support resource strained counties.
Today marks that time of year again – hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists are headed to the Sturgis Rally ready to cross one of the world’s biggest parties off their bucket lists.
Businesses are eager to accept the fat wallets of road trippers, however there are costs associated with the Rally and tourism season more broadly – costs that often fall onto the shoulders of county government.
State Senator Helene Duhamel is on a legislative study committee on county funding and services. The Rapid City Republican said much of the debate orbits the dreaded ‘T-Word’ - taxes.
“For the past several years enabling legislation to allow counties to have a sales tax has failed," Duhamel said. "We also were under the impression that the governor would oppose any tax increase on her watch. Finally, we’ve decided we have a – it seems like we’ve hit the point where we have to look at other options for counties if we’re not going to give them another funding source.”
Tourism brings hundreds of millions of dollars to the state each year, but many county services – think ambulances, search and rescue and the sheriff’s department – don’t see a cent of that sales tax revenue. Duhamel, who works as the spokesperson for the Pennington County Sheriff’s Department, said counties big and small are feeling it.
“We are nervous about what the future looks like," Duhamel said. "All the counties around here have incarceration issues, we’ve been asked if we could handle their incarceration needs. We would love to – there’s no room at the inn. As soon as somebody gets arrested, the county is on the line – cha-ching cha-ching. The public defender, the court costs, the prosecutor. It goes on and on.”
Duhamel said the legislative study is assessing what she describes as “unfunded mandates” that have been forced onto counties. They’re also considering other recommendations - like letting individual counties vote on a sales tax or changing how liquor taxes are distributed.
Until that time comes though, Duhamel said property owners are saddled with the bill.
“Oh, it’s huge," Duhamel said. "When the nice weather comes, Summer and Fall, tourists come here, but by not having enabling legislation – by not having a sales tax – all of the property owners are paying for the privilege of hosting these hundreds of thousands of people.”
And that’s no exaggeration. Sturgis Rally officials expect as many as 450,000 people this year – and that’s just 10 days of the summer. Duhamel said Sturgis is a clear case of how challenges domino off one another.
“Because you have a lot more traffic, you have people who are not from the area having difficulty navigating the terrain," Duhamel said. "We have a lot more accidents, a lot more enforcement, a lot more people getting lost in our parks and our forests. All of that stuff adds to the burden of what we do day-in-day-out. It’s just multiplied.”
Many of those calls will eventually require boots on the ground, and some of the responders are not even paid to help. For example, the Custer County Ambulance Service. Director Ruth Airheart said their mixed volunteer-salaried force considers this the busy season.
“I think I can say fairly confidently we manage all of our calls, whether its tourist related or local," Airheart said. "We typically run 100+ calls through the summer months per month, versus 60-70 calls during the other times of the year.”
And when events like the Rally come around, Airheart said it becomes a management game.
“It can be ten days of chaos, but we try to coordinate it to the best of our ability,” Airheart said.
In a similar situation is Custer County Search and Rescue - a wholly volunteer force. Director Sam Smolnisky, who earns his living as an EMT, said they run a tight ship.
“The people that go out and perform those rescues are doing it voluntarily out of the goodness of their heart," Smolnisky said. "That’s able to help us keep costs extremely low. The operation we’re running here, if that was a paid thing it wouldn’t function.”
That means if you get lost in Custer County an unpaid force of about 50 people who each have careers and families are on call 24/7 to save you.
Smolnisky said a fundraising group helps them foot the bill for the gear that’s essential for volunteers but outside their budget. Essential rescue equipment and off-road capable vehicles can turn a valley in the middle of nowhere into an extraction point or medical clinic – but it’s paid for by the goodwill of donors.
Smolnisky said this kind of fundraising and volunteerism, while meaningful, can only go so far.
“The reality is we know there is always a shorting on funding and budgeting, and we’re sitting pretty good right now, but we’ve seen such a drastic increase in the last five years," Smolnisky said. "Our calls have doubled, the amount of volunteer hours we put in is almost doubling.”
With every service feeling the squeeze, law enforcement is no exception. Custer County Sheriff Marty Mechaley said everyone has to step up and respond to more calls every single year.
“It is extremely busy over the summer months," Mechaley said. "I’ve been here since 2005, so I’ve been around here a while, and it’s kind of just become the normal for us. We know we’re going to have to work harder and work longer hours.”
And with no community police departments in the entire county, that means 14 officers cover everyone within an area of more than 1,500 square miles. The next meeting of the county funding and services summer study group is scheduled in mid-August. Recommendations from the group could potentially become bills in the next legislative session.